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Witness for the Prosecution

(1957 b 116')

En: 8 Ed: 7

Based on a play by Agatha Christie and directed by Billy Wilder, an aging lawyer defends a young man accused a murdering an older woman for her money while depending on the testimony of his wife from Germany.

            In London in the back of a car the nurse Miss Plimsoll (Elsa Lanchester) is trying to take care of the lawyer Sir Wilfrid (Charles Laughton) who has just been released from a hospital. As they arrive at his home, she reminds him that he had a small heart attack. He goes in and tells the servants who are lined up to get back to work. He says he missed his ugly, old room. Carter (Ian Wolfe) says he lit a candle for Wilfrid and for himself because he has worked for him 37 years. Wilfrid tries on his wig and finds it in mothballs. Carter says his doctors will not let him take any more criminal cases, but Wilfrid disagrees. Plimsoll tells him he must go upstairs and rest. Wilfrid gives a speech on justifiable homicide. She shows him the cigars he is smuggling in his cane and confiscates them. Carter shows him the lift they installed so that he does not have to walk up the stairs. Wilfrid enjoys the ride.

            Mayhew (Henry Daniell) comes in and tells Carter it is urgent that he see Wilfrid, who comes back down. Mayhew introduces Leonard Vole (Tyrone Power), who smiles and says he is in trouble. Wilfrid leads Mayhew into his office and closes the door. Vole tells the servants he may be arrested soon for murder.

            Mayhew tells Wilfrid that Vole is caught in a web of circumstantial evidence. Wilfrid wants a cigar, but Mayhew has no match. So Wilfrid invites Vole in to light his cigar. Vole locks the door and says he did not murder anyone. Vole says that he made a statement to the police because he was with the woman who was killed. Vole asks about cases when an innocent person is convicted. Wilfrid says he cannot take his case because of his doctors. Wilfrid recommends the lawyer Brogan-Moore. Vole says he has little money and has not worked for four months. He is a mechanic and worked in a toy department. He also tested electric blankets. He was in the army in Germany. He is married but is not much of a provider. He says he invented an egg-beater that separates the yolk from the white. Wilfrid asks how he met Mrs. French. Vole tells the story.

            Vole looks into a window at Mrs. French (Norma Varden) trying on a hat and shakes his head. She tries another, and he nods approval. She comes out, and he says why he likes it. He sees his bus and says goodbye.

            Vole tells how he met her again in a cinema. Wilfrid asks if he knew that Mrs. French was well off, and he says no. He says she invited him to her house for tea, and he demonstrates his egg-beater. He says it whips cream too and gives her that one. Mrs. French leads him out of the kitchen to the living room. She says her husband was a “witch dentist.” Mrs. French offers him sherry and pours him a glass. Vole says he visited her about once a week.

            Mayhew asks him to tell what happened on the night of the murder. Wilfrid asks how much money he got from her, but Vole says he did not get any. Wilfrid asks him why he did not tell her that he was married. Vole explains. He admits he wanted a loan for his invention. Wilfrid reflects sunlight from his monocle into Vole’s eyes. Vole says he did not do it and asks him to believe him. Wilfrid says he believes him now, but he has no alibi. Vole says he got home at 9:26. Wilfrid says his wife’s testimony does not carry much weight.

            Brogan-Moore (John Williams) comes in, and Wilfrid introduces him. Wilfrid says there is no motive, and Voles said he could not pay them. Brogan-Moore says Vole has inherited £80,000 from Mrs. French. A police car stops below the window, and Wilfrid says they are on their way up. Wilfrid welcomes Inspector Hearn (Philip Tonge) into his office. Vole is arrested on the murder charge and says he has never been arrested before. He asks someone to call his wife, and Mayhew says he will do so and go with him. He goes out with the police, and Mayhew discusses the case with Wilfrid.

            Carter comes in and says Plimsoll will quit if he does not rest right away. Wilfrid says to kick her out; but Carter says he will resign too, and Wilfrid gives in. As he is about to ascend the stairs, Christine Vole (Marlene Dietrich) comes in and introduces herself. Wilfrid says her husband has been arrested. He says that Brogan-Moore will conduct the defense and explains the case to her. Wilfrid goes upstairs, and Plimsoll prepares his bed, chattering. Wilfrid slips out and goes down to his office.

            He tells Christine to go on and sits down. She says Leonard has a way with women. She asks if her husband had previous knowledge of the bequest, and she asks if that is what he told them. She suggests her husband’s relationship with Mrs. French was not just friendship. Wilfrid tries to use his monocle on her eyes, but she pulls down a shade. He asks her when he came home that night, and she says the same as her husband. They remind her that she must tell the truth, and she says she will. Wilfrid asks if she loves her husband. She does not answer, and Wilfrid says she cannot be made to testify against her husband. She says they are not legally married. Wilfrid asks if her husband loves her, and she says he worships her. She leaves, and Wilfrid thanks her for coming. Wilfrid and Brogan-Moore discuss her. Wilfrid asks him if he believes that Leonard is innocent, and he says he is not sure. Wilfrid says he will take the case. Plimsoll comes in complaining, and Wilfrid has her give him a match.

            Leonard is in jail and brought to a room where he thanks Wilfrid for representing him. Mayhew has him put on an overcoat for a photograph because he wore it that night. Leonard asks why his wife has not come to see him. Wilfrid reads the evidence of Mrs. French’s housekeeper Janet. He asks if Leonard helped her make her will, and he denies it. Wilfrid asks about Christine and how they met.

            Leonard in an army uniform goes into a German cabaret where Christine is singing “I May Never Go Home Anymore” and playing an accordion. A drunk sergeant rips her pants, and a fight breaks out. Military police come and break it up. Vole hides and is not arrested. After they have gone, he goes back down to get his drink and speaks to Christine. He helps her find her accordion. He offers her a cigarette and a tin of coffee. He asks if she has hot water at her place, and she leads him into another room in the cellar.  He asks if she is married, and she says no. He puts some coffee in the cups, and she kisses him twice, asking if that is a fair rate of exchange. He gives her the whole tin and kisses her. He also gives her milk and sugar. He will give her other food items. He lays on the bed, and the ceiling falls in. She asks if he is all right and kisses him.

            Leonard tells them that they got married, and she was glad to live in England. Wilfrid says he will not call her as a witness. Leonard says she must give evidence. He says he is scared and needs her.

            In the courtroom Leonard is charged with murder, and he pleads not guilty. The judge lectures the jury, and the prosecutor Mr. Myers (Torin Thatcher) addresses the jury. He notices that Wilfrid is not there, and Brogan-Moore says he will be there presently. Myers says how the defendant was treated well by Mrs. French, who was killed by a heavy instrument. Leonard says he did not do it. He calls Inspector Hearne.

            A doctor tells Wilfrid that his blood pressure is too high for him to be in the courtroom. He gives him a calcium injection and gives him nitroglycerine tablets. Wilfrid trusts a thermos of cocoa to Carter, and Plimsoll smells it first.

            Hearne says the time of death was between 9:30 and 10. Wilfrid enters the courtroom and objects to a question twice. Hearne says he found the fingerprints of Leonard Vole. He testifies that there was an appearance as if a robbery had occurred. Wilfrid objects to a leading question. Hearne says nothing was missing. He found fingerprints of Mrs. French, Vole, and Janet. He identifies a jacket he found in the prisoner’s flat which had blood stains from type O, which is the same as that of Mrs. French. Wilfrid cross-examines about the fingerprints; a robber might wear gloves. Wilfrid brings out that Vole had cut himself with a knife while cutting bread. Wilfrid has a certificate that Vole has type O blood also.

            Janet MacKenzie (Una O’Connor) is called to testify. Plimsoll has Carter give Wilfrid a pill, and he takes it so that Plimsoll can see him. Janet describes that night and says she left the house at half past seven. She went back for something at 9:25 and says she heard the prisoner talking to Mrs. French. She went back to her niece until after eleven. She found Mrs. French dead. She did not know that Vole was a married man, and Mrs. French believed the same. Janet testifies that Mrs. French changed her will, and she heard her discussing it with the prisoner one week before she was murdered. Wilfrid asks if in the old will she was the main beneficiary, and she says yes. He asks what they actually said. She says she heard them laughing, and Wilfrid implies it may not have been Vole; it could even have been the television. She says the television was being repaired that week. Wilfrid sits down and pours himself a drink. He asks if she is registered under the National Health Insurance Act. He asks if she applied for a hearing aid, and she admits she did; but she did not get it yet. Wilfrid demonstrates that she does not hear very well.

            On the third day of the trial the prosecution calls their final witness—Christine. She comes in and takes the oath. Wilfrid objects to the defendant’s wife testifying. She says she is Christine Helm and is not actually Vole’s wife because her previous husband is still alive. She agrees that she is married to Helm. She testifies that Leonard returned at 10:10, and Leonard says she knows it is not true. She says he was breathing hard and told her to wash the cuffs of his coat because of the blood. She testifies that he said he killed her. She explains she told the police what Leonard asked her to say out of gratitude to him. She will not be an accomplice to the murder by lying. Wilfrid asks how she wants to be addressed, and she says it does not matter. She admits she lied to Leonard about her marital status and to the authorities and in the marriage ceremony and to the police. She also lied about his having accidentally cut his wrist. Plimsoll tells Carter to give Wilfrid a pill. Wilfrid says nothing is to be gained by questioning her further. Myer asks her if she knows what perjury is, and she is aware of the penalty for perjury. She swears she has told the truth in this trial. She walks out, and Leonard holds his head.

            Wilfrid begins the defense with a speech about the circumstantial evidence from the Inspector, Janet who lost the inheritance, and Christine who was fraudulently married to Vole. He says they could call character witnesses, but only one witness can shed light on the case. He calls Leonard Vole.

            Vole takes the oath, and Wilfrid questions him as to his name. Vole says he did not murder Mrs. French, and Wilfrid says that is all. Myer asks if he has money or if he expected money from Mrs. French. He says he did not. He admits he wore a brown coat and hat on that night. Vole admits he went to a travel agency and asked about luxurious cruises with a clinging brunette. He says he does not know how he would pay for those cruises. He says he met that girl, and they saw the posters and went in for fun. He says it was putting on an act. He never thought of killing anyone or inheriting anything. He refers to his wife and says he does not understand. Vole turns away as he is questioned about that night. He says he cut his wrist. He asks them to believe him. He says it is like a nightmare.

            Wilfrid comes home and is shown Bermuda shorts for a fitting. Plimsoll says they are going on a boat train. He says the jury may be out for days. He discusses the case with Brogan-Moore and Mayhew. Carter asks Wilfrid not to get too emotional in his last speech tomorrow. He says he will speak sitting down if necessary. Carter answers the phone, and a woman asks to speak to Wilfrid because she has something to sell him. Wilfrid takes the phone. The woman says she has the goods on Christine. She is at a bar in a train station and asks him to meet her there and bring money. She hangs up. He calls it balderdash but leaves for Houston Station.

            At the train station Wilfrid and Mayhew find a brunette woman. She orders two whiskeys for them. She has letters and shows them to them. They negotiate, and Wilfrid gets her to agree for £40. She shows a scar under her ear. She hates Christine because she stole her man away from her, and he cut her face. Mayhew shows Wilfrid another letter. Wilfrid says they need the name of the man to whom they were addressed, but she has gone.

            In the courtroom Myers makes his closing remarks. Wilfrid comes in late and asks to re-open the case so that he can call a witness who suddenly has appeared. He cites various cases including one with the judge. He says they are letters by Christine Helm. The judge overrules the objection by Myers. Wilfrid calls Christine and asks her if she knows a man named Max. She says no. He refers to October 20 when she wrote a letter to Max. She says these are lies. Leonard says it is not true. In the letter she explains that something has happened. She describes her letter paper, and Wilfrid presents it. She shouts, “Damn you!” She breaks down. The judge asks Wilfrid to read the letter, and he does so. She explains that her husband’s case depends on her testimony. She says she will become free when he is taken away. The judge orders her to return to the witness box. Wilfrid asks her if she wrote that letter. Leonard says he knows she did not. The judge warns her about perjury. She admits she wrote the letter. Wilfrid says that is the case for the defense.

In a dressing-room Wilfrid says it is too neat and tidy. The jury is coming back, and they return to the courtroom. The jury finds the prisoner not guilty of murder. Wilfrid puts on his monocle. The judge discharges Vole so he can leave the court. Vole shakes hands with his three attorneys. Wilfrid says he is not happy yet. A commotion is heard, and Christine is brought back into the courtroom away from the crowd. Wilfrid asks to finish the cocoa. She walks over and uses a mirror to adjust her collar. Wilfrid says she will be charged with perjury and will go to prison. She says he does not like her. She says Wilfrid did not do it alone; he had help. She says Leonard is free and that we did it. She testified so that he would go free. She speaks like the woman in the train station. She invented Max and spent hours writing those letters. She says she knew he was guilty. Wilfrid says that cannot be so. She says he did come home with blood and said he killed a woman. She says she loves him. Leonard says she is a good actress, and he knew that she would do something for him. Wilfrid says he made a mockery of English law; he cannot be tried again. Wilfrid says he will pay for this. Leonard offers to double his fee. He will buy her the best defense. Plimsoll and a brunette come in. She tells Christine that she is his girl. She says they have been going together for months, and they are going away on a cruise. Vole says he saved her in Germany, and now she saved him. Christine is upset, and he pushes her down on a chair. Wilfrid with his monocle reflects light on a knife on the table. Christine picks it up and stabs Leonard, who falls down. A doctor is called. Plimsoll says she killed him, and Wilfrid says she executed him. Wilfrid says she is a remarkable woman. Plimsoll knows they are not going yet. Wilfrid says they will defend Christine, and Plimsoll says he forgot his brandy.

            This courtroom drama portrays a murder case in which a clever lawyer is used to gain an acquittal, though the underlying motives and realities are revealed in the end.

Copyright © 2012 by Sanderson Beck

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